On October 12, 1941, between 6,000 and 12,000 Jewish women and men were killed in Nazi-occupied Stanyslaviv. This Sunday fell on the Jewish holiday of Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot, when God seals the judgment about the blessings that the world will receive in the coming year. Because of the most massive “campaign” for killing the Jewish civilian population, this date was called “Blutsonntag” or “Bloody Sunday”.
“Bloody Sunday” was followed by subsequent, less numerous “campaigns” for the extermination of Jewish women and men in Stanyslaviv. In general, during the German occupation, according to various estimates, from 40,000 to 120,000 Stanyslaviv residents with Jewish roots were killed.
At the beginning of 1944, about 100 prisoners were brought from the Janowska concentration camp and forced to dig out the mass grave in the New Jewish Cemetery in order to search for gold and jewelry, and then to burn the corpses, to sift the ashes and to grind the bones.
In Frankivsk, the urban legend exists that the New Jewish Cemetery is (partially) under the City Lake, the largest artificial body of water in the city, which was created in 1955. In 2017, “Prykarpattiaenerho” employees found a mass grave with the remains of at least 50 people near the City Lake and the New Jewish Cemetery. The burial place dates back to the early 1940s.
“Some consider this body of water to be cursed, because many people have drowned here over the years,” the local mass media write.
The cemetery under the city lake of Ivano-Frankivsk exists, and at the same time it does not exist.
The world of mythologized history has diverged from the academic history, which society and the state rely on. However, the myth of the cemetery under the lake completely fits into the outline of the ideologized history. It is not that it was inherently undesirable, it just lacks a strong evidence base.
The history-myth and the history-science coexist here in the space of a shaky compromise. Neither has yet secured a convincing victory over the other.
According to Martin Pollack, we live in “poisoned landscapes” that ubiquitously hide mass graves. According to Timothy Snyder—on “bloody lands” where mass extermination of certain groups and subsequent suppression, erasing them from history have become almost the norm.
The legend about the cemetery under the lake is almost an attempt to return the victims, to save them from oblivion. But this legend has not influenced anything in essence, rather it has expanded the boundaries of the acceptable. Yes, on weekends the city residents walk around the (allegedly) flooded cemetery, and sometimes they even get onto a boat to swim over the tombstones, why not?
This legend has rather given voice to the insanity of common memory, to its constant self-advancement. It has questioned the commonality that strengthens itself with myths and silence. When the real we begin speaking, the agreed upon “we” falls apart.
What does it mean to return to the conversation about the old genocide against the background of the new genocide? Russian missiles fly to Babyn Yar. The Jewish cemetery in Hlukhiv is shelled. The shell craters where cemeteries and playgrounds are located tell us that we have ultimately returned to history. We are no longer in the “eternal today”, we have both the past and the future. Both have become the battlefield.
And what does it mean—to fall victim to a new crime at the time when you are emerging from the long shadow of previous crimes? And what was Ukrainian political subjectness during the periods of forced statelessness?
Are we the heirs of Ukrainian accomplices in the atrocities of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century? Are we responsible for these accomplices? Does this responsibility lie with us in addition to the possibility of being a “political nation”?
And do we have the right to at least a small rest between an infantile-colonized state and political maturity as the acceptance of responsibility? Maybe the quarter-century long entr’acte was a luxury? Maybe the grayish post-Soviet timelessness was great happiness? Burnt-out ideologies were limply smoldering before our eyes. The ruins were being covered with plasterboard and clapboard. This once judenfrei city almost became geschichtenfrei—free of history. New and new lakes were appearing in the suppression and lacunae of the historical narrative. It cannot be said that in this regard Stanyslaviv-Frankivsk differed considerably from the rest of the country.
But today the integrity of the myth is compromised. Its melancholic content leaks through the breaches. The cozy sadness that filled the legend about the lake does not have enough place in the present day.
When flooding occurs, the limits of what we can accept and endure make their appearance. Flooding allows us to learn our boundaries. Shadows take on flesh, but there is too much of this flesh. Timelessness had lulled us, and then history came like a flood.
The epoch of trials presents the clarity of vision.
The lake with the simultaneously present and absent cemetery at its bottom is our mirror.
History is a chain of devouring ones by others. To describe this, historiography accustoms us to adjectives. For a narrative to be kept within the comprehensible, everyone must have a clear affiliation—Jewish victims, Nazi executioners, Ukrainian collaborators. These adjectives wound by inaccuracy, excluding unmarked victims and their defenders from the narrative. These adjectives wound by guilt, the reminder of which can be felt unbearable against the background of the ongoing genocide that is taking place against “our” group. To be felt unbearable but, in fact, not to be such.
Unlike individual guilt, collective guilt rarely exceeds the limit and fills not without reason, if not fairly.
In such a situation, memorializing “not our” victims and taking their side require an additional explanation. “Who do you have there, relatives or property?” the female artist from Kyiv, who had visited Crimea after 2014, was asked. She had nothing in Crimea, but she assumed the right to know what was happening not in her zone of registration but in her field of empathy. In the unmarked mass grave in the New Jewish Cemetery, we have no one, but there is a universal right to remember “ours”, “not ours” or just people. Claiming the right to remember is a helpful practice for anyone anytime, especially while being filled with collective guilt.
The right top be forgotten belongs to the one who will attest to our failure.
The story of Bloody Sunday in the New Jewish Cemetery is a story about forgetting rather than remembering.
Forgetting is inevitable, and the mechanisms for (collective) memory need clear structures and disciplined rituals. “History and memory are not identical,” Aleida Assmann says, and then she reminds us to take care of free institutions and public places for accumulative memory—historical and unbiased, which absorbs everything that is lost in the interrelations of modernity. Namely, accumulative memory will then be a reliable reservoir of functional memory—generally accepted and selective. Then we will not forget.
I learned about the memorial museum “Bloody Sunday in Stanyslaviv”, which “was created in 1998 at the place of the mass grave of the victims of Bloody Sunday and is an important cultural center for preserving memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Ukraine”, from artificial intelligence in the GPT chat.
Everything about this museum was fascinating. Except the fact that it never existed.
In the city where in one day ten thousand of its inhabitants were killed in a genocidal act, there is no memorial plaque, toponym or museum exhibition. Can our common oblivion of the catastrophe of this city be attributed to their absence, because they were not created for us and we were not enlightened?
Marian Golka says about forgetting that occurs when a certain culture is being killed or exhausted:
“Forgetting is often caused by self-deception—either from shame or for other reasons, as well as by a kind of suicide of memory, that is, repression.”
The New Jewish Cemetery, where ten thousand women, men and children were shot and buried in the mass grave, is repressed out of the city mental map and moves under the lake. While the cemetery exists safely, the deserted road to it is covered with mud almost all year round, and the old cemetery wall towards the lake is completely preserved. Can our collective oblivion of the catastrophe of this city be attributed to our own laziness, because we did not get there?
Is our collective forgetting taught helplessness or a convenient strategy?
The cemetery under the lake, that is physically not there but mentally it is exactly there, is a mystery of the presence of absence and the spoiled photographic film, on which an image is both present and absent. This is inert amnesia, which suggests that the right to forget should belong not only to those who recall.
Those whom we should have remembered also have the right to be forgotten, if they attest to our complete failure and posthumously refuse us preserving their memory in such a way. If they emancipate from the objects of an effective genocide and ineffective memorializing and ultimately leave this space with tiny remnants of artifacts and survivors’ testimonies. If they get out of this desert covered with paver blocks, get out into infinite freedom and leave us in the peace of unfreedom.
Those who claim their right to be forgotten will not hide their history under the lake concrete slabs for us to find it later. There is something different at this bottom.
Guilt has overwhelmed us and possessed us completely. It has poured over, inundated, flooded, captured, filled and overflowed, it has dissolved the cause and the object. The flooded zone must be left immediately—everyone who has ever got in a flood knows this. Those whom we should have remembered know this.